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Reframing Shock to Provide Space for New Solutions and Practices to Emerge

Anthropology in Action

This post was submitted by Mark Powell, who–along with Stephanie Glendinning, Vanesa Castán Broto, Emma Dewberry, and Claire Walsh–contributed the article Shaped by Shock: Staff on the Emergency Department ‘Shop Floor’ to the most recent issue of Anthropology in Action. In this post, Powell discusses some of the challenges and rewards of researching this topic. 




The article, ‘Shaped by Shock: Staff on the Emergency Department Shop Floor’ was produced by a team with a range of academic interests, backgrounds and training. Our aim was to try and reframe notions of shock away from the purely negative, to consider how moments of disruption can provide space for new solutions and practices to emerge.


Collecting data for this article was challenging from the start and did not become easier once clinical gatekeepers agreed access to the department. The question we constantly asked ourselves was how could we build sound research relationships with staff working on the ‘shop floor’? In practical terms, interviewing staff meant not only finding a quiet time within the busy life of the department but also centered on finding a way to motivate staff to open up and start talking. In hindsight, the success of our research probably came from us proving we were serious about our research, prepared much like them, to work in a flexible way and not lose faith just because things got difficult.


The senior sister in charge day-to-day had a clear sense of how to deal with researchers like me. She agreed we could interview in the department but only at 7am on a weekday morning, at the beginning of the day shift before things tended to get busy. On the first day I arrived bleary eyed. I was led by the senior sister to where night-staff doctors and nurses had just handed-over to the new day shift. I felt completely out of place, standing alone in front of the fidgeting group, them eager to escape to the common room rather than stand there a moment longer. My introduction to our research was met by an awkward stony silence. When I had finished the eyes of my audience were all focused on my feet. Doris the senior sister grunted something from behind a nearby desk and the group swept away to the common room en masse for a cup of tea. I was left alone, apart from one senior nurse who took pity on me and agreed to a short interview.


The next day I returned and found the waiting room filled with people wanting to be seen and was told, ‘Today is not convenient.’ The following week I returned but found it busy again. In the third week I presented myself to the receptionist and was asked to wait as she disappeared to find Doris, the senior sister. A moment later I heard Doris’ voice from behind the screen saying, ‘You’re kidding, he’s back again!’


In research there are conversations that go on about you behind your back. In the emergency department I have no idea who said what, or how people regarded me in the privacy of the staff common room. It is easy to assume that people agree to be interviewed because they are interested in the research itself, rather than for some other personal reasons. Actually, some people take part because they enjoy the opportunity to talk about themselves, some are bored and like a distraction, while others, I’m sure, just take pity on researchers who seem to be having a hard time. Perhaps, in my case, my willingness to endure the early mornings and the frequent disruptions and disappointments was more of a factor in allowing us to collect interview data than any real interest among participants in our research. I cannot say for sure but for whatever reasons, from that third week onwards my research did get easier as people expressed an interest in meeting and talking.



Mark Powell’s article appears in Volume 21, Issue 2 of Anthropology in Action. Click here to sign up for a free 60-day trial of the journal, or download a free sample issue by clicking here.